A Conversation with Julie Kallenberger, Associate Director, Colorado Water Center

Julie Kallenberger works as the associate director of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University and has been on the board of Water Education Colorado since 2019. We spoke with Julie to learn more about the Water Center’s programs that focus on wildfire and watersheds. 

Can you describe the work you have been doing at the CSU Colorado Water Center? What are some key projects that you’ve done?

I’ll focus on one of the projects that has been done by our regional water specialist, Blake Osborn, down in the southeast [area of Colorado] who is overseeing the WAVE (Watershed Assessment and Vulnerability Evaluations) program. The program comes in after a fire has occurred and Blake works with a particular landowner directly. Using drone footage, the program maps the damage and generates an assessment of the damage. The WAVE program also allows the landowner to prioritize how they want to re-establish their damaged land. The landowner might identify, let’s say, five different things that they want to restore or mitigate for future fires and Blake helps prioritize those as part of the program. It’s a new program and it is getting a lot of attention around the state. Basically, that research includes looking at hill slopes, channel treatment recommendations, hydrologic modeling, and looking at the impacts of hydrologic conditions on the land. The WAVE program helps fill gaps that other agencies and government agencies are not able to. That’s the niche that this program looks to fill.

How has your work changed over the years with population growing and as drought, forest fires, and flooding have become more drastic events?

So, as you can imagine, the topics of fire, flood, and drought really require rapid responses. We try to plan as best as possible and have resources for the community in extension—with our partners. We have research readily available. We have websites ready to go to anticipate the next disaster, including fire. It’s really hard to organize some of those topics and resources fast, but we are trying to get more nimble and be able to respond to the needs of our clientele who are looking for a fact sheet, or funding, emergency services, information on preventative measures, or how to implement BMPs (Best Management Practices). We want to get that helpful information out to help mitigate both pre- and post-fire as quickly as possible. The more fires and the more natural disasters, the more calls and requests we get for assistance in terms of resources or desired research to be funded to help support decision making. We assist public and private landowners, water managers who deal with water quality issues, and the research community. They’re relying on us as a research institution to provide and find funding to conduct sound research.

The Colorado Water Center funds and conducts research, and educates students and professionals alike, on water issues which can be socioeconomic, environmental, or even political in nature. Can you talk about the difficulties of balancing human needs and wants, economic interests, and the health of the environment when it comes to watershed and forest management? How do you prioritize?

Wow, that’s a good question. A million-dollar question, or really billion-dollar question. It’s a challenge, for sure. I think as a center we are interdisciplinary by nature. It’s our mission and it’s our goal to make sure that we are addressing all those different facets that you just mentioned. We can’t just look at one without the others, although balancing them is the challenge. We try to support the research that helps the decision maker balance those. So as long as we are doing and supporting interdisciplinary research, then we have fulfilled our role in providing knowledge and that information to the people who are making decisions. We aren’t a decision authority organization, but we use our research dollars to fund people in our own center who are inclusive of all those things that you just mentioned and educate the decision maker.

Colorado has a multitude of organizations that are dedicated to the protection of our watersheds and forests. How has collaboration played a role in maintaining our water quality pre- and post- wildfire?

In terms of water quality, especially after the flood this summer and the Cameron Peak Fire just in our backyard, collaboration is key. You hear that time and time again, but it’s true. Nothing gets done well nowadays unless you have an inclusive team and rely on leveraging resources. Nobody has the funds to do it all by themselves, so the relationships we form with our partners and that we see our partners forming with their communities are critical. The work cannot be done without collaboration and partnerships. And, it has changed over time. I would say that previously a lot of people worked in their own silos, but that tune is changing. People are branching out because they see the value in interdisciplinary work, whether that’s research or practice on the ground. It seems like a more collaborative era in general, especially in the last half a decade. It takes more time and planning with more people at the table, but it’s worth it in the end because everyone is heard and has valuable input. That is how you achieve the change that we need to see on specific topics like fire management, fire restoration etc. Those are achieved by working together.

What are some of your favorite experiences and memories working with Water Education Colorado?

The WEco staff and board are all very near and dear to my heart. I was introduced to WEco … around 2009 or 2010. I was invited to staff one of their summer river basin tours. I just remember how well organized, educational, and engaging it was. It felt like a community that was very welcoming. We were down in Southeast, Colo., and it was just a very enjoyable trip. I went with a few of my colleagues from here at the university and got to know them a bit better in the process. Taking two or three days out of the office is really challenging, away from your day-to-day duties, but I felt like it was time well spent because I learned so much and met so many new people. I really enjoy getting to know the staff better through their programs and participating in them as my schedule allows. And, of course, with the invitation to serve on the board of directors, I’m surrounded by amazing and intelligent water professionals, and they like to have fun too. I always appreciate how they sprinkle a bit of fun into the work we do and the levity that comes with being around a group of like-minded individuals

Is there anything that you feel inclined to add? Something that you want our readers to know?

I didn’t really speak about the other researchers at CSU doing fire-related research. We had a list, an ongoing list of faculty and staff researchers here who are doing various aspects here, whether it’s water quality, post-fire management, or watershed restoration. CSU has active research teams working on these topics as well as other universities around the state that I don’t want to ignore because the center does support the entire state in terms of higher education. The Colorado Forest Restoration Institute (CFRI) at CSU, designed and implemented a monitoring process to measure changes in fire potential and fuel hazard reduction accomplished with WRRG funds (Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant). Our Colorado State Forest Service at CSU also educates on Wildfire issues like vegetation health, insect populations, risk assessment, and recovery. We funded two projects recently out of our competitive grant that looks at different aspects of fire recovery. It’s a team effort here at the university and there has been a lot of good that’s come from bringing together faculty from different departments to go after, for example, NSF (National Science Foundation) or USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) funding to go over these research topics.